Seven short weeks ago, after days of storm warnings and evacuation orders, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the United States. The entire eastern seaboard, from Florida to Maine, was affected, as tropical force winds extended roughly 900 miles at their widest. In Texas, I sat transfixed like most others across the country, praying for the safety of those in Sandy’s path.
In the days after, millions mourned their losses and city leaders did their best to return to business as usual. We all knew the clean-up would cost money, but it wasn’t until weeks later that we had a figure—leaders in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut announced that they needed a collective $82 billion in federal disaster relief funds, including more than $15 billion to protect against future storms. But as New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg framed his request around actions like moving electrical transformers in commercial buildings to upper floors and creating the ability to shutter key tunnels, airports and subways during a flood, I had to wonder: Where was the discussion about natural infrastructure? Where was the acknowledgement of the importance our wetlands, oyster reefs and seagrass play in storm management? Now more than ever, such issues are vital to the national conversation.
Mounting evidence shows that rising sea levels and storm surges pose a real risk to coastal populations. The Nature Conservancy has made big investments in the science of coastal resiliency, especially along the Gulf of Mexico coast. If you don’t live in one of the five Gulf States—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Florida—you may not think of the Gulf Coast region as much more than a flood plain. But the Gulf of Mexico supports an incredible diversity of marine life and is hands down one of the hardest working bodies of water around. It supports one of the country’s largest recreation and tourism industries, to the tune of $20 billion a year and more than 600,000 jobs, and is responsible for roughly 90 percent of all our offshore oil and gas production. The Gulf also produces more than a third of the seafood Americans eat, including 60 percent of our oysters and more than 80 percent of our shrimp.
But we are taxing this great natural resource and steadily stripping away its natural defenses. The Census Bureau projects that more than 61 million people will call the Gulf region home by 2025, and every single one of those people will need to eat, drink and turn the lights on—that means increased food production, energy exploration and development. Such stressors have already had a tangible effect on the Gulf—what is considered one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world has lost nearly 50 percent of its wetlands, 60 percent of its seagrass beds and 50 percent of its oyster reefs.
Yet, the health of this ecosystem is crucial to our collective livelihood. Oyster reefs, wetlands, seagrass and coastal marshes play an incredibly important role in protecting our coastlines; they prevent erosion and serve as natural buffers during hurricanes and tropical storms. And investing in such natural infrastructure creates an insurance policy for the future.
Consider this: Within the last decade, The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has poured $200 billion into the Gulf Coast region in the wake of various hurricanes—that’s roughly the cost of damages incurred by Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy combined. In fact, the second largest fiscal liability of the U.S. Government, behind Social Security, is the National Flood Insurance Program. And insured assets in flood prone areas along the Gulf coast represent almost half of the U.S. total.
But what if we could mitigate those insurance claims in the future? What if we could rebuild our natural storm buffers and help protect the millions of people in coastal communities? That is the Conservancy’s hope for the future. We have invested in thousands of acres of Gulf coastline, ensuring habitat for important species like whooping cranes and the Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle and helping to restore precious wetlands. Dr. Jorge Brenner, associate director of marine science for the Conservancy in Texas, has developed a web portal and series of tools that will help coastal managers, scientists and the conservation community predict how hurricanes, storm surges and sea level will affect their cities and coastal habitats in the future.
And in 2013, we will begin construction on our Half Moon Reef oyster reef restoration project in Matagorda Bay. Oysters are one of the Gulf’s most important inhabitants—those little bivalves are not only delicious, they also act as a natural water filtration system. The Gulf of Mexico is the final outlet for 207 estuaries and more than 30 major river systems in this country, including the mighty Mississippi River; oysters strip nutrients and impurities from those millions of gallons of freshwater flowing daily into the Gulf. With Half Moon Reef, we plan to not only construct a viable habitat for oysters (and various other marine life), but to help restore the Texas Gulf Coast to ensure protection against hurricanes and tropical storms well into the future.
My thoughts on coastal resiliency echo a speech given by Mayor Bloomberg on December 6 of this year. New York City cannot “just rebuild what was there and hope for the best,” he said. “We have to build smarter and stronger and more sustainably.” Without question, that should be our goal.
Every single person in this country has a vested interest in the viability of our coastal communities—they are home to a growing number of Americans, support our food and energy needs, and contribute millions to our annual economy. The coast also serves as cultural touchstones for so many of us—who can forget their first time seeing the ocean or wriggling their toes in the sand? So let’s not wait for disaster to strike; let’s make coastal resiliency part of the big picture discussion on storm preparedness. By ensuring the health of our coastlines we can help protect ourselves and invest in a bright future for our children and grandchildren.
Laura Huffman is the director of The Nature Conservancy of Texas. A native of Austin, Huffman has a long and distinguished record of public service. She earned a master’s of public affairs from the University of Texas at Austin and a bachelor’s in political science with a minor in history from Texas A&M University. She makes her home in Austin, with husband Kent and their four children.
[Hurricane Sandy comes to shore in Marblehead, MA. Photo credit: Flickr user Brian Birke via Creative Commons]
by Laura Huffman, The Nature Conservancy